Pop CultureAugust 23, 2017

Decline and Fall is the closest thing we’ll get to Downton Abbey in 2017


Sam Brooks watches the new Eva Longoria vehicle Decline and Fall and finds a show more British than a pint of lager and a packet of crisps. 

Decline and Fall is maybe the most British show I’ve ever watched.

How British is it? First of all, it’s based on a 1928 satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh (the most British name ever, other than Evelyn Waugh’s son, who is called Auberon Alexander Waugh). The novel is very critical of British society in the 1920s, and makes fun of it in the most British, prim and proper way possible. According to the bastion of journalistic knowledge known as Wikipedia, there was an Author’s Note at the start that said that IT WAS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.

That’s how British it is. It has to tell you it’s funny. That’s what you’re dealing with when you watch Decline and Fall. It might sound like a slog, and if you’re not into a certain kind of British humour where the men are wacky and chinless and the wordplay is dictionary-based, then this might not be for you. But if you want to see some people be prim and proper at each other, and fail at being prim and proper and then fall entirely from society while doing it, this is the show.

Decline and Fall revolves around the travails of Peter Pennyfeather – yet another British name – after he gets kicked out of Oxford for indecent exposure. Jack Whitehall, a man with the kind of cheeks that you just want to pinch and eyes bluer than the aforementioned pinched cheeks, plays Pennyfeather and for someone who strikes such a tense balance between relatable and hateable in his stand-up, he’s surprisingly likeable here.

It helps that Pennyfeather is a victim of his circumstances, and also the victim of some genuinely terrible people, and his jerk-y nature is dulled into a more lost hipster vibe. Whitehall also has one of those English accents that sounds like a warm cup of tea, with just a dash of milk and sugar in it. Always comforting, never overwhelming. It helps.

The other star of the show is Eva Longoria, playing the widowed Margot Beste-Chetwynde, pronounced Beast-Cheating, which is genuinely funny. Yes, the Eva Longoria who was better than you remember her being on Desperate Housewives is on this show, which is the closest thing to Downton Abbey you’re likely to find in 2017.

She takes a while to appear (about half an hour and eight seconds into the first episode, by my incredibly scientific measure) but once she does she’s a breath of fresh air. Pennyfeather quickly falls in love with Margot, perhaps because she’s the only person with a chin within fifty miles, and the bulk of the story follows what happens after that pretty stupid action.

Longoria is the clear highlight of the series, which is mostly populated with a menagerie of British actors who you’ve definitely seen in something – probably Harry Potter – but can’t quite remember their names or who they’ve played. She plays Margot with an affable amorality (but I am sad to report no silly accent) that is intentionally jarring in this context.

Margot is at odds with the world around her, and Longoria does this with a one-foot-in-one-foot-out approach; there’s no way she doesn’t know what she’s doing, but the appearance that she doesn’t is enough to sell it. Also, the same knack she had for a one-liner in Desperate Housewives helps her here. There’s a scene where she has to audition some performers that ranks among the best of her career, and it’s where her spikiness feels liveliest against the relative softness of the other performers.

But other than Longoria, this is as British as shepherd’s pie/black pudding/your choice of disgusting dish. This is a show where the first episode takes place in a boarding school, a character says ‘mama’ with that insane emphasis on the second ma, and people are hypocritical as hell. The funniest scene in the whole series revolves around what to order for dinner, which sounds like shade, but it is genuinely funny. If your idea of the height of comedy was Maggie Smith saying “What is a weekend.” on Downton Abbey (and realistically, that is the funniest thing to be said on British TV outside of Absolutely Fabulous), then Decline and Fall is the show for you.

It’s also pleasant as hell. Sometimes all you want from your TV is Jack Whitehall saying lovely things to Eva Longoria while wearing a nice hat, you don’t want people decapitating other people on Game of Thrones, or I assume that’s what happens on that show. There’s a character on this show called Lady Circumference, for christ’s sake. Relax, and let yourself be enveloped in the warm, slightly suffocating humour of a pre-World War II England.

Make yourself a nice cup of English Breakfast and tuck into Decline and Fall, available on Lightbox below:

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